A prolific and versatile writer, Manikuntala Bhattacharjya is counted among the leading litterateurs of Assam. Her broader way of perceiving life is clearly reflected in her writings that highlight various social issues like witch-hunting, HIV-AIDS, old age home, insurgency prevailing in the society. She has been vocal against the odds in the society and her message of peace and love is explicit in her writings. Besides being a fiction writer, Bhattacharjya did some prominent research on the mobile theatres of Assam. Even though some of her concepts have landed her into controversies, however, of late her thoughtful endeavour is well accepted among the audience. Defying the impediments, Bhattacharjya, an award winning poet, novelist, short-story writer and children’s writer has a collection of thirty-nine books to her credit with some Hindi and English translations, including nineteen novels, four novella collection, three children’s novels, two article collections, three works of translation and one autobiography in verses. She has also written eleven scripts for drama, feature films, television serials, etc. A regular contributor of a few leading daily newspapers and magazines, she has also attended a number of literary seminars at National and International levels. While revealing the chronicles of her life as a writer, Bhattacharjya talks to MUMENINAZ ZAMAN
Tell us about your childhood, how did you develop the passion for writing and what was your inspiration?
During my childhood, I was not a healthy child, as a result of which I used to refrain from going outside and used to spend time playing indoor games. My father used to read me stories, and I gradually started to develop a fantasy world in my mind. He has always encouraged me to read and write. I have been a curious child and loved to read a lot, and ever since I have encountered with alphabets in school, there was a feeling of restlessness. When I was in second standard, I was affirmed that whatever stories I have read, I will bring out a collection of those when I grow up. Then my father told me, “Why will you make a collection of other’s stories? You will write and create your own collection.” Those lines of my father inspired me so much, that I already felt that a writer was born within me.
In another instance, my father used to have an almirah, which always remain locked and was filled with books. There was inquisitiveness in my mind of what was confined in those locked pages. One day while my father left the almirah open, I secretly started to explore the books, and to my astonishment, I was surprised to find that those books were large volumes of Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads. Since a tender age the eagerness to learn and read has led me to know about the age old literature, which is still raw in my mind and my work.
From ninth standard till my graduation, I used to write daily and have contributed to school and college magazines. During the period of Assam Agitation in 1983, when I was in high school, I was approached by some college students to write banners and placards, since my handwriting was good, I felt a revolution back then, and all these instances have created a kind of self encouragement for me.
You have written poems, short stories, novels and scripts, how did it all start?
My life took a twist after I got married, I got engrossed in my life as a housewife and was blessed with a daughter, I enjoyed that period of my life immensely. For twelve long years I did not even write a single word. However, even though I stopped writing, I always perceived myself as a writer.
One day while I was going through the “Amar Asom” newspaper, I came across a poem written by Homen Borgohain. After reading the poem I felt like something was missing and it could have been much better. Accordingly, I took my husband’s official writing pad and wrote a poem titled “Joubon” and send it from Goalpara to the Guwahati office of “Amar Asom”. To my surprise, I received a reply from Homen Borgohain himself, where he stated that he has discovered a powerful poet within me and to keep up this spirit of writing. That was a very great source of encouragement for me and I started writing regularly.
It all started from 1999, I used to write poems and every Sunday in the literary pages of ‘Amar Asom”, “Aaji” and “Pratidin” my poems used to get published regularly. Later in 2002, I was able to bring out my first collection of short stories, “Prostor Konya”, for which I was honoured with the Munin Borkotoky prestigious literary award. Gradually, I took up writing novel secretly during my spare time, however, I was totally ignorant about how to write a novel, I did not even have any concept either. My first compilation was based on my childhood fantasies, imaginations and the feelings within my heart, it was published in a series every Sunday in ”Deuboriya Sombhar” of “Asomiya Pratidin” and it created a kind of ripple across the readers. Everybody thought it to be my life’s real story, that novel was “Arundhati”, and as a book it was published in the year 2005. The same year my husband encouraged me to write about AIDS, and thus my next novel, “Sondhiya” saw the light of the day. Apart from these some of the exceptional novels that are very close to my heart are: “Borduwani”, this novel is regarded as a classic novel and has the highest readership, this novel narrates the struggles and uncertainities in the life of a women entrepreneur. “Devwala”, focuses on the life of lady tea planters of Assam. “Jamuna”, was based on how the life of a woman would be like, after the sudden death of her husband and son. “Moi Desdemona Hobo Khuju”, highlights the mobile theatre of Assam, “Samiana” showcases the burning issue of witch hunting in our society, “Mukti”, is another novel, which revolves around the topic of homosexuality, “Baahi”, is about a village life and soon it will be showcased on the big screen. In the novel “Anurudh”, I have depicted how the protagonist explores and leds his life in the nature, when kept away from the comfort and the hustle and bustle of urban life.
One of my long cherished dream was to bring out a novel on the subject of magic realism, this subject was earlier attempted by Marquez, who was honoured with the Nobel Prize for Literature. I used to question myself why there can’t be a book on magic realism in Assamese language, it was then I chased my dream and bring out my book, “Mur Desh”.
I have also tried my hands on a trilogy, the first and second half of which are already published, under the title “Dostokhot” and “Soraikhana”. The third part is yet to be conceptualised.
Inspired by my novels, I was approached by filmmakers, producers and directors to write scripts for the same. My stories were taken for films, and I used to see the script and dialogues, however, my first love will always be poems and novels. Some of my works were even translated in Hindi and English and broadcasted on the national TV, and sometimes they are broadcasted with sub-titles. I have also written scripts for programmes in PPC.
“Chitrapat-The Canvas”, an autobiography in verses is the first attempt by any writer in Assamese literature. You have also been compared with writer, Vikram Seth, for your work on Chitrapat, enlighten us more about your experience.
Initially, I was bit hesitant about writing an autobiography, but it was Homen Borgohain, who insisted me to write an autobiography, he said, “A poet’s life comprises of consciousness, thoughtfulness and knowledge through which one’s life gets matured fast, and for that you need not wait to grow old. You can definitely do it in the form of verses.” His words strike my mind and I completed the entire autobiography in verses, within just four days. The autobiography highlights the period of Assam Movement.
What is your take on children’s novel?
I love to write for children, and while I do so I get lost in the story and discover myself as a child. As I have mentioned earlier, my childhood imaginations play a very important role in what I am today. One of my children’s novel “Ishu” is about the social upheaval, witch hunting, which was published in 2009, this story was also adapted by noted director, Utpal Borpujari for a feature film of the same name. “Aaranya”, is another children’s novel where the characters are animals, and I really enjoyed writing this novel a lot. One of my upcoming project also includes a novel based on the childhood of Homen Borgohain, this novel would be an inspiration for many, mostly children, as it narrates the life of a child who turned out to be a stalwart in the field of literature. Nowadays we can see that children are not much inclined towards reading books, so this novel is worth it.
What are the challenges that you face during the compilation of your work?
Challenges, were many since the initial stage of my profession as a writer. When I wrote my first novel Arundhati, I wrote it in first person, as such people used to think that it was my own personal story, and I received some rave comments and reviews for the same. I have been a broad minded writer and I write my heart out, while I write about love, romance, and relationships, my concepts were considered too bold to be published, and for which one of my book was also banned from publishing. Better late than never, as time changes people gradually understood that I am only a writer, and they started to accept my work from a wider perspective. Even though I have received many negative comments, I did not bother at all since I wrote the truth. Moreover, I was fortunate enough to have a supporting husband who always encouraged me whenever some controversy arises. My daughter is my strength, who constantly motivates me to write and give back to the society. I just want to give one message through my work, everything is possible in this world with love, and not violence.
You are counted among the leading names of Assamese literature, what response do you get from your fans, experts and critics.
I have received a lot of love from my readers and well wishers and I consider myself lucky for the never ending support and encouragement from stalwarts like Homen Borgohain, and they have a lot of expectations, on which I have to stand upon.
Tell us something about your upcoming projects?
At present I am working on four novels, which will be published in a series in monthly magazines like Goriokhi, Nandini, Janambhoomi etc. I am also working on the theme song of Baahi, my novel which has been adapted as a movie. I am also translating a novel from Hindi to Assamese, which is based on Kashmiri Pandits.
Manikuntala Bhattacharjya’s work, were mostly first of its kind in Assamese Literature. Apart from writing novels and poems she has also done translation work from Hindi to Assamese in “Gomona”, Assamese translation of Vincent Van Letters and “Tarjoma”, which is a collection of Hindi poems translated into Assamese. She has won a number of awards, including the Munin Borkotoky Award (2004), Bishnu Rabha Award from Assam Sahitya Sabha (2008), Bhabani Sarma Literary Award (2010), Nari Shakti Award from Lions Club (2017), Oikyotan Sahitya Award (2017), Enajori Sahitya Sanman, Best Novelist Award from Assam Talks TV Channel, Satabarsiyo Sahitya Sanman from Assam Sahitya Sabha, Saiyad Abdul Malik Award from Assam Sahitya Sabha, Champawati Award and the list goes on.